Italian authorities have so far recovered about 120 bodies from yesterday’s accident a very very short distance from the shores of Lampedusa. Authorities believe there may be more than 150 bodies of children, women, and men still to be recovered.
What can be done to prevent such deaths? It is certainly possible that nothing could have prevented yesterday’s disaster. This was not a case of a disabled boat left to drift at sea while ships and aircraft failed to assist. This was not a case involving a failure to act promptly to rescue persons in distress. This was not a case of a diplomatic dispute between countries over which country had the responsibility to rescue and where rescued persons were to be disembarked after rescue. It may turn out to be the case that someone observed the overloaded migrant boat as it sailed from Libya towards Lampedusa. If the migrant boat was observed by a commercial or military ship, a rescue operation probably should have been implemented immediately. But while the Mediterranean Sea is crowded with ships, it is certainly possible that this boat sailed unobserved from Libya to Lampedusa.
Could anything have been done to prevent these deaths?
Could anything have been done to prevent the deaths of 13 migrants who drowned on the beach at Sicily last week? Or the 31 people who drowned off the Libyan coast in July? Or the 20 who died near Lesvos Island in Greece last December, the 89 who died in the Strait of Gibraltar over 10 days in October-November 2012, or the 58 who died off the coast of Izmir, Turkey in September 2012? (For a more complete list of reported deaths at sea consult Fortress Europe’s La Strage web page (the Massacre).)
As long as people move, whether forced to flee danger or to improve their lives or for other reasons, there will be dangers on land and sea. The dangers will always be greater when people are compelled to move outside of legal channels. Creating more opportunities for legal migration and creating an external procedure for seeking refugee protection within the EU would help many people and would reduce the numbers of people traveling by dangerous means. But there will still be people unable to secure a visa or protection who would be compelled to travel by sea.
There are many measures that can be taken by the EU to reduce the numbers of people dying in the Mediterranean and off the coast of western Africa. As a reminder, here is an excerpt from the recommendations issued last year by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in the report issued in the aftermath of the deaths of 63 people on board the “left to die” boat that drifted in the Mediterranean for two weeks. The recommendations made sense then as they do now:
- fill the vacuum of responsibility for an SAR zone left by a State which cannot or does not exercise its responsibility for search and rescue, such as was the case for Libya. This may require amending the International Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (SAR Convention)….;
- ensure that there are clear and simple guidelines, which are then followed, on what amounts to a distress signal, so as to avoid any confusion over the obligation to launch a search and rescue operation for a boat in distress;
- avoid differing interpretations of what constitutes a vessel in distress, in particular as concerns overloaded, unseaworthy boats, even if under propulsion, and render appropriate assistance to such vessels. Whenever safety requires that a vessel be assisted, this should lead to rescue actions;
- tackle the reasons why commercial vessels fail to go to the rescue of boats in distress. This will require dealing with:
- the economic consequences for the rescuing vessel and its owners, and the issue of compensation;
- the disagreement between Malta and Italy as to whether disembarkation should be to the nearest safe port or to a port within the country of the SAR zone. The International Maritime Organization should be urged to find a solution to the matter and step up its efforts towards a harmonised interpretation and application of international maritime law;
- the fear of criminalisation (trafficking or aiding and abetting irregular migration) by those who go to the rescue of boats carrying irregular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees;
- legislation to criminalise private shipmasters who fail to comply with their duty under the law of the sea, as is already the case in certain Council of Europe member States;
- ensure that, in accordance with the Hirsi v. Italy judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, after the rescue operation, people are not pushed back to a country where they risk being treated in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights;
- tackle the issue of responsibility sharing, particularly in the context of rescue services, disembarkation, administration of asylum requests, setting up reception facilities and relocation and resettlement, with a view to developing a binding European Union protocol for the Mediterranean region. The heavy burden placed on frontline States leads to a problem of saturation and a reluctance to take responsibility;
- respect the families’ right to know the fate of those who lose their lives at sea by improving identity data collection and sharing. This could include the setting up of a DNA file of the remains of those retrieved from the Mediterranean Sea. In this context, the ongoing work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other organisations should be acknowledged and supported.
For more on this, see Jack Shenker’s article in today’s Guardian, “Mediterranean migrant deaths: a litany of largely avoidable loss.”